BY TAFFY JAFFE
First I would like to thank my computer. After seeing a play, I return home searching out info about the author, and any other details that the playbill does not provide. The play, The Film Society was last produced 25 years ago . Reading about the writer Jon Robin Baitz gave me a larger view of this work.
The action takes place in South Africa in 1970 where apartheid is still in place. We are in a private boys school. The Head Master Sutter, (Gerry Bamman), is invested in maintaining the status quo so parents do not remove their children. One of the teachers, Terry, (David Barlow) invited a black priest to speak at the commencement. As a result of his action Terry loses his job. He is outraged when the priest is arrested and later murdered. He tries to convince his wife Nan, (Mandy Siegfried) to move elsewhere. He tries to enlighten his friend Jonathon, (Euan Morton), Assistant Head Master to the evils of apartheid. But Jonathon, powerfully played, is torn between supporting his friend or the establishment. Jonathan’s mother, Mrs. Balton, (Roberta Maxwell), with great style tries to convince her son to help maintain the families privilege through his position at the school. This is the thrust of Act 1. The play is 21/2 hours long. This act seems more talkie and slow moving than Baitz’s later works. This was his first play written when he was 25. It put him on the map of writers to be watched.
Now for some of the research. Baitz’ father, a corporate executive moved the family from California to South Africa. Baitz was the only Jewish child in an Anglican boarding school. There are interviews with Baitz that allude to his guilt about being too comfortable with his privilege. He sees this as analagous to Americans complicity with a government acting outside the law, trampling the constitution. “Good Germans, all of us, to one degree or another….”
Act 2 reveals what choices the characters ultimately make. It is not the same to take positions, as it is to take actions. In dire circumstances, as in the case of Terry and his wife, survival comes before passion. It brings to mind the concept the banality of evil. There is another theme regarding homosexuality. It is implied that Jonathan is gay. He warns Terry that he tried to make it elsewhere, but noone will help you. Jonathan’s mother also tells him he is destined to be alone. In interviews Baitz refers to the limitations of his gay life, no children, etc. Although that is changing, the changes do not suit him. These issues are engaging and thought provoking. However, they are presented in a cerebral manner with little emotional engagement.
There is a scene where Jonathan’s mother proposes that the headmaster choose her son to be his replacement. This is connected to her contributing money to the failing school. The headmaster questions: “must we negotiate like Jews?” She references her accountant “Mr. Schwartz”. Only one review from a 1967 production, for Curtain Up by Elyse Sommer referenced this. She wondered if “the compromises that have allowed the British to survive in non apartheid South Africa have made a dent on these colonists’ deep rooted anti-semitism.” How’s that for sticking your neck out? I suspect Baitz experienced anti-semitism in South Africa.
Bravo to the set designer Steven C. Kemp. I recently applauded his outstanding sets for Philip Goes Forth. The acting was on a high professional level. The casting was done by Calleri Casting. I am forever grateful to them for helping Nina Arianda get the lead in Venus in Fur. Jonathan Silverstein did a strong job directing. The costumes
were done by Jennifer Paar. Where did she ever find that incredible dress for Mrs. Balton, who carried it with great
Writer: Jon Robin Baitz Director: Jonathan Silverstein Set Design: Steven C. Kemp
Cast: Gerry Bamman, David Barlow, Richmond Hoxie, Roberta Maxwell, Euan Morton, Many Siegfried
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes Remaining Showtimes: through October 26, 2013
Location: Theatre Row, Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42 Street
Ticket prices: $62.50 For tickets and info: 212 239 6260